On May 13, not long after sending down incumbent third baseman Danny Valencia to AAA, the Twins GM Terry Ryan called out the option-less Plouffe
to step up his game:
“I’d like to think we’re going to give Plouffe an opportunity here to step up and see what we’ve got. Eventually, we’re going to have to find out.”
Heading into the May 16 contest in Detroit, he was staring down a .133/.288/.217 batting line in 73 plate appearances. The lack of production had incited plenty of conversation regarding whether or not he deserved to be on the roster at this juncture at all.
Perhaps it was recognizing he was down to his proverbial last strike with the organization or that with Danny Valencia and Chris Parmelee sent to Rochester he would receive regular playing time or because he finally cut his damn hippy hair which was hindering his abilities to hit
. Whatever the reason, Plouffe suddenly emerged as a serious power threat. From May 16 onward, Plouffe has hit six home runs, two doubles and has driven in nine runs in 13 games.
Part of what has lead to the power outburst is that he is turning on pitches far better post-May 16 than he had been doing previously. According to BaseballHeatMaps.com
, Plouffe’s pre-May 16 fly balls were traveling an average of 272 feet. Post-May 16, he was driving the ball much further on average, hitting them 295 feet. While the numerals might not do the significance justice, the visual spray charts found at TexasLeaguers.com shows what the discrepancy of over a 20-foot average looks like:
You can see the difference in that not only is Plouffe losing a few more balls over the fence, he is also driving the ball better to the left-center field gap. Prior to this stretch the majority of the time Plouffe turned on a pitch, he would do so and give the defense the opportunity to make a play on the ball.
The increase in home runs – as welcomed as they are – still does not cover up the fact that the rest of his overall numbers leaves much to be desired. After all, Plouffe has a sub-.300 on-base percentage even during his recent hot streak. What’s interesting about his numbers is that during the early portion of the season (pre-May 16), Plouffe had walked 13 times in 73 plate appearances in spite of hitting .133. Since then, he has drawn just one walk in 51 plate appearances. Even with the precipitous decline, his walk rate remains above average and the highest of his career to date. Given that he has a 10 percent walk rate one would expect a beefier OBP but that is not the case.
What is actually driving the fact that he is hitting below Aaron Gleeman’s weight
(which is the modern day Mendoza line) and getting on base less than a 30 percent clip is that his batting average on balls in play – or BABIP - is atrociously bad. In fact, among those with a minimum of 100 plate appearances this year, Plouffe’s .192 BABIP is the fourth-lowest in baseball.
Somewhere between 2010 and 2011, the Twins got Plouffe to make several adjustments to his set-up and swing. The new model led to more lift and elevation of pitches which begat a noticeable increase in his power numbers. The problem with fly balls is that if they don’t leave the park, they have a difficult time becoming hits.
What’s more is that his fly ball rate has grown significant from last year (now at 47%, up from 40% in 2011) at the expense of his line drive rate. Although this is a good precursor for a home run, hitting a high percentage of fly balls that don’t land on the other side of the fence often are converted to outs. In Plouffe’s case, an even higher than normal amount of flies are being turned into outs, so there is an element of “bad luck” involved. The average fly ball hit has found vacant real estate roughly 13% of the time (by far the lowest among the three types of batted balls) but the flies off of Plouffe’s bat have landed safely just 5% of the time. Likewise, Plouffe’s grounders (39% of his batted balls) have found seams in the defense just 15% of the time, well below the MLB average of 24%.
As the season progresses, Plouffe’s figures are likely going to move towards the mean as more fly balls and grounders find free space. Of course, ultimately, unless he raises his line drive rate above the paltry 14.3 percent (only eight other players have lower line drive rates this year), his numbers will not climb all that quickly.
Turning on pitches with more authority and greater distance has led to some much needed offense, positive signs for the Twins’ super-utility player. His added plate discipline has given him another dimension as well and may be an indication of progress at the plate. At the same time, we have witnessed Plouffe on a power binge last season that eventually fizzled out later in the year so it is entirely possible that this outburst subsides too.